Personal Brand and Company Rights

This post is triggered by Mr. Owyang's comments this morning on How Companies Respond to the Risks of Personal Brands. I am in a Company, and, having just reviewed and responded to some early materials on my company's policy around social networking sites and personal blogging, I have done some deep thinking about this topic in the last few weeks.

But I first must mention that these opinions are my own and neither reflect nor argue with my Company's policies and practices in this area. In the same vein, I have worked for several large companies and consulted for many more, and my observations here apply across the board for the standard American corporate environment. This is an environment that culturally allows for departmental exceptions -- and in many cases, celebrates departmental diversity. I am speaking of corporate culture in general, not the free-wheeling, creative groups within most corporations (incidentally, typically under the protection of a valued, but squirrelly executive.)

Mr. Owyang describes the risks and the responses he's observed, and recommends some approaches over others. The comments on this post are wide-ranging and in general agreement with each other. I also agree with most of them. What I want to contribute is a set of observations about corporate practices that affect this situation.

Okay, enough pompous stuff.

What we're talking about here is a genuine conflict between different philosophies: you can call them property rights philosophies, at will philosophies, work philosophies, personal freedom philosophies, reputation philosophies, or brand philosophies. There's a genuine clash. My belief is that this essential conflict cannot be "solutioned" around -- it's not that some people understand and some people don't. There is actual, legitimate disagreement here -- with truth on both sides. Corporations don't talk about their side of it for two reasons: 1. they don't have to, and 2. a thing can't actually talk.

That may be funny, but it's not a joke. Ten years ago, I handed out the Cluetrain Manifesto to all the internal web publishers I trained (dozens), but the basic message is still un-used: Only people can connect on the web. Or let's go back to The Medium is the Message -- the web is hot: social networks are white-hot (just south of sex for intimacy, one finds), while the Corporate voice (aka Brand messages) is cool, cooler, cold. As most brand managers would say it should be. And that's why Corporate Blogs are like congealed gravy, because they in fact are.

Okay, a sandbag here -- even the lively brands that splash on the fuschia are cold in media terms: I love the iPod silhouettes -- it's a picture of a person, not a person, and the brand is what surrounds the person, not the person -- it's both true and insightful and completely consistent with my point. A brand is not a person. If a brand, like Aunt Jemima, or Hannah Montana, steps out of the freeze frame and enters personhood, the "brand" collapses into a baggy wrapping of "reputation" around that person. And actually, when that happens, we (the people) usually get mad. It doesn't make sense, but we get mad at that person. A brand is far grander than a person -- we hold a brand to a very high standard of behavior, one that an actual person could never meet. Miley, Britney, Madonna, Princess Di, Col. Sanders, Paris, Bill Clinton, all the politicians brought down by events that we'd find odd but okay among our co-workers -- as long as it's on their personal time... Google learns the hazards of brand in China -- a good business move (opening a tight market) is a horrible breach of trust for a brand.

The only way the Corporate side of this conversation gets out there is for a person inside the corporation to decide to represent the monolith's point of view. And some of the commenters do describe their personal experiences with these issues vis-a-vis their monoliths.

Now I channel the Corporation (note the right justification):

First of all, about what indivuals do to enhance their networks -- we're not talking about Brand here -- we're talking about reputation.

By its nature, brand belongs to a non-person. Companies can also have reputations, and that has an effect on their brand value, of course, but it's not the same thing. Once a person has a brand, they aren't a person anymore -- they're a non-person, an entity, a concept. Personal brand is a similar concept to sole-proprieter. A person, but also an entity.

Many corporations have policies that forbid employees from taking a second job, or from serving on another company's board of directors (without written permission from legal). This may have caused problems for some individuals, but the reason for the policy is well understood and accepted (and endorsed by case law). A Corporation has a reasonable right to insist that their employees not put themselves in positions where they might have a conflict of interest: whether in a decision or how they spend their extra working time when it's needed by both employers -- or in 2.0 terms, this policy states and enforces the fact that your professional brain space, energy, and attention are all exclusively dedicated to the Company. Just like all your team members -- you are to focus on your teams' success when you are working. That's really the point of exempt and non-exempt employee classifications -- in one, the company is buying time, in the other, the company is buying your full attention. In several comments, people point out that in a 70 hour work week, they find it hard to distinguish personal time from professional time. Okay. Employers can't actually prevent you from taking care of personal business on work time, if you are salaried. (They can insist that you not take care of your business using Company equipment however -- for many good and bad reasons.) So go ahead.

Let's be clear in our definitions, however: spending time on private matters is very different from engaging in activities that might create a conflict of interest.

What Corporations are wrestling with right now is the large and tangled question of whether these new opportunities for external self-aggrandizement (or personal brand development activities) pose the same risks of conflict of interest as a second job with a different employer.

This is the advanced point of view: other Corporations are still being distracted by internet porn policies -- thinking that the risk of employees' external publishing is in the area of morality and the risks of inappropriate sexual conduct. They're putting it in the same box as sexual harrassment, thought it's not said -- the concept is that there is too much risk of our employees publically misbehaving and embarassing us to permit them to play in this space. This will pass. And by the way, it will only pass when people start acting online in a way they would act in the lobby of their offices.

What's ended along with privacy is the ability to distinguish between a work self and a personal self. For people who are what they work (like Mr. Owyang, god bless him), this has happened without their noticing. For people who find expression in a self that isn't really the same as their work self, it's going to be an issue. It's an issue for them and it's also going to be an issue for their employers, once they figure out what's going on. I think it's more in the nature of a rocky transition coming than a "first amendment issue" (C'mon -- if you don't know that the first amendment doesn't apply when you're at work, you're seriously out of touch -- in the eyes of the law, your speech at work is "commercial speech" and it belongs to your employer -- you don't really get a say in it, so to speak.)
The rocky transition is going to go both ways -- shouldn't everyone work for an employer who appreciates them for their real self? Isn't it crippling to have to spend your professional life pretending to be a person you are not? Most people would agree that that is true I think -- though many (most? Who knows?) corporate workers do show a different face to their employer than their true one.
And by doing that, we've created unmeetable expectations on the part of our employers -- the employers will have to adjust their expectations to embrace the fallible, foolishness that we're going to be showing in our online photo galleries or there will be few qualified candidates for the big white collar factories.
It's going to force us all to be more honest. As transparency does.
But don't miss this fact: the question of whether an employee can be forbidden from engaging in activities that might create a conflict of interest has already been answered: and the ansswer is Yes.
If you are salaried, you work for your company in a much more comprehensive way than you might think. Like it or not, you are a company man. If that agreement doesn't work for you, and you are a very valuable employee, you might look at consulting to your current employer to remove the uncomfortable constraint. Of course, benefits... If you're not a valuable employee, you'd better decide which is more important to you. And even if you're valuable, you should know that you are always at risk of making a mis-step. There is no net if you are building a personal brand that conflicts with your employer's commercial interests.
And don' t get me started on intellectual capital, the investment of training, and how far into my brain does my employer's ownership extend? Seriously, don't.

Random asides:
Some people find it easier to talk about the conflict as if it were generational, a fiction that Dan Schwabel and Adam Singer tussle over in the comments.

Have you experienced this? In a lively and irreverent phone conversation with a vendor developer, we talked about some of my requirements, including an interface that approximates TwitterDeck. "I love Twitter" the developer said. "Me too," I said, "I'm abbyshaw -- who are you?" Long silence -- "Well, it's not really business-appropriate" he finally said. "Okay," I said, "mine isn't either, really." But here's the consequence: I really admire this developer, but all of a sudden, I felt like he was presenting a fake front to me in our dealings -- and that he didn't want me to see his real side. It really hurt my feelings. But maybe that's okay.

I should also mention that I am a deep believer in the inevitability of the commercial reputation web. But that commerce is different from the business of my Company.

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